Think quickly: What was the religion of the person who wrote the following?
“Oh God, open all doors for me. Oh God who answers prayers and answers those who ask you, I am asking you for your help. I am asking you for forgiveness. I am asking you to lighten my way. I am asking you to lift the burden I feel. Oh God, you who open all doors, please open all doors to me, open all venues for me, open all avenues for me. God, I trust in you. God, I lay myself in your hands.”
Or this: without looking it up in a search engine, what belief system does this person belong to?
“Isn’t it time for the unbelievers to discard these incoherent, illogical beliefs, theories, and conjecture? Isn’t it time for every atheist to cast off the cloak of spiritual darkness which enshrouds them, and emerge into the light of [name of religion omitted], to live a life illuminated by faith and die the death of a believer, return to his Lord, pleased and pleasing to Him, rather than living out his days in blindness, to die as an unbeliever and be resurrected as an unbeliever, whose eternal abode is a fire from which the fire of this world screams in fright?
…I have discovered that true happiness is to be found in obedience to God’s orders and prohibitions… And I can state with a confidence born out of experience and observation that as long as a person persists in unbelief and atheism, his or her pursuit of happiness will be exactly that – a pursuit, a never-ending search, which is guaranteed to bring him misery, if not in this life then in the next. By that, I mean to say that even if he does happen upon some degree of happiness today, it is guaranteed to be short-lived, ending at his death, and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that eternal happiness is better than the fleeting delights of this world.”
It isn’t easy to guess, is it? Without specific references to the name of a religion or specific scriptural quotes, which the above piece has been modified slightly to eliminate, this could be an anti-atheist apologia given by a representative of any of the world’s major theistic religions. The standard elements are all there: the claim that atheism is illogical, that atheists are blind and bemired in darkness, that their fate is eternal damnation, and that even in this life they cannot hope to find anything worthwhile or that produces true satisfaction. I would venture to suggest that this piece sounds very much like an attack on atheism made by a fundamentalist Christian.
The first piece is even more difficult. It is a hauntingly lyrical poem, a snippet of prayerful verse seeking God’s help for the supplicant. It expresses the writer’s total obedience to what he believes are God’s desires, his immovable faith that God will give him succor in a time of difficulty and crisis. I suspect many religious people would find it quite moving and beautiful. Even I feel a small chill down my spine when I read it.
Despite their differences – often vast and violent differences – in matters of dogma and in what God wants us to believe, the representatives of many of the world’s major faiths sound very much the same. There are some common values that unite all religions: a desire to live in accord with God’s will, a certainty that doing so will produce true happiness and joy, a resolute belief that against such a faith the world can hurl what storms it will in vain, and a disdain for atheism and unbelief as misguided at best and ignorant or even evil at worst. Such common values are what drives ecumenical religious movements, and what leads many religious liberals and moderates to believe that deep down, all the world’s faiths are not really that different.
It is true that there are many things that unite us, and we should all work together to promote these things. However, the religious ecumenists are going about it in the wrong way. In essence, they are creating a problem for themselves – via the embrace of incompatible dogmas on both sides – and then trying to work around that self-created problem through the facile route of asserting that those beliefs are not in conflict. This is a ridiculous and ill-advised endeavor. Different faiths are in conflict, because they make conflicting and incompatible beliefs about the nature of the world. The fact is that if any one of the world’s major faiths is truly correct, then all the others are wrong, and wrong about things which they hold to be very important. Either Jesus was the messiah promised in the Jewish scriptures or he was not; either he was divine or he was not; either God is a trinity or he is not; either there is reincarnation or there is not; either there is Heaven and Hell or there are not. These dichotomies and others define the fundamental points of conflict between different religious faiths, and so long as moderate theists are willing to hold their core dogmas as sacrosanct and immutable while insisting that their differences with other believers are reconcilable, their position will remain incoherent.
In truth, what unites us is not the worship of dogma, but our common humanity. We are rational, thinking creatures who feel happiness and sorrow, who feel empathy for others and care for others. This is what we truly all share in common, not a set of unverifiable and mystical beliefs handed down from ancient history. In this respect, rather than disdaining atheists, ecumenists should listen to us. We are the first group of human beings to realize that dogmas held by faith can only divide, never unite us; and that is part of the reason why we have set them aside. Atheism is, in truth, a recognition that the things of this world, and not fantastical beliefs about other worlds, are the only real and important things, and so they are the things we should rely on to bridge our differences and bring us together in a genuine community of human beings.
By the way: the first excerpt quoted in this article is from a handwritten document found by the FBI in the luggage of Mohammed Atta, one of the September 11 hijackers, on the day of his final flight. (Atta’s luggage did not make it onto the plane.) The second excerpt is from a speech given by Adam Gadahn, a.k.a. “Azzam the American”, a convert to al-Qaeda who has been indicted for treason and is one of the FBI’s top ten most wanted terrorist fugitives.